The Silmarillion has the following to say about Men and their specialness:

Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else...

The Silmarillion, Of the Beginning of Days

Does this mean that the actions of Tolkien's Elves are without Free Will, and entirely based on the Music of Ainur? Were the Kinslayings and the other evil brought about by the Feanorians all predestined and mandated by the Music of the Ainur?

What else does Tolkien say explicitly on the subject of the various races and Free Will?

  • I feel like this question borders on Philosophy or maybe even Theology. Does "destiny" preclude free will? If you want Tolkien's personal views, they might not be contained in his LotR-related works.
    – MetAlien
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 12:02

6 Answers 6


Does this mean that the actions of Tolkien's Elves are without Free Will, and entirely based on the Music of Ainur?

No; it's a good deal more subtle than that. The Elves have free will in their actions, but their ultimate destiny is predetermined.

Were the Kinslayings and the other evil brought about by the Feanorians all predestined and mandated by the Music of the Ainur?

As I say above, their ultimate destiny is predetermined, but the actions they take in order to meet that destiny are under their own control. So Feanor might be said to be destined to make three Holy Jewels, to lose them, to seek to get them back, and to ultimately die while failing to do so. However, he need not have taken any evil actions while meeting this destiny.

We see a parallel to this in the words of Ulmo to Turgon, and Turgon's subsequent actions, in the Silmarillion:

And Ulmo warned Turgon that he also lay under the Doom of Mandos, which Ulmo had no power to remove. 'Thus it may come to pass,' he said, 'that the curse of the Noldor shall find thee too ere the end, and treason awake within thy walls. Then they shall be in peril of fire.'

Turgon is of course free to either accept or reject Ulmo's counsel via Tuor; in this case he rejected it and the Doom of Mandos caught him, but even if he had accepted it he would still have been under the Doom of Mandos - it would have just caught him another way.

There's no reason to suppose that predetermination of Elvish fate via the Music of the Ainur is any different.


There's a detailed discussion of free will in Tolkien's writings -- which notes that in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, in letter #181, p. 236 Tolkien wrote that Men and Elves "were rational creatures of free will in regard to God". The part of the letter that this quote is excerpted from can be read on google books here, a fuller excerpt shows that although the God of the story allowed his first creations (the Ainur, which included both Valar and Maiar) much power to shape the world, nevertheless:

the One retains all ultimate authority, and (or so it seems as viewed in serial time) reserves the right to intrude the finger of God into the story: that is to produce realities which could not be deduced even from a complete knowledge of the previous past, but which being real become part of the effective past for all subsequent time (a possible definition of a 'miracle'). According to the fable Elves and Men were the first of these intrusions, made indeed while the 'story' was still only a story and not 'realized'; they were not therefore in any sense conceived or made by the gods, the Valar, and were called the Eruhíni or 'Children of God', and were for the Valar an incalculable element: that is they were rational creatures of free will in regard to God, of the same historical rank as the Valar, though of far smaller spiritual and intellectual power and status.

As the author of the page in that first link discusses, though, there are all sorts of philosophical subtleties in what can be meant by "Free Will", and whether it can be in some sense compatible with fate or even determinism (Tolkien's comment above can be interpreted as saying that aside from miracles, it would in fact be possible to "deduce" everything that would happen from "a complete knowledge of the previous past", perhaps implying that his universe operated in a fundamentally deterministic way in between miraculous "intrusions").


It was not exactly meant that Men had free will, and Elves did not. The individual retained free will always according to the will of the One.

The Elves were restricted to a certain course and and did not naturally die in Arda. The course of their life is already planned so the choices that they make of their own free will have a predetermined conclusion to which their actions will lead them.

Men, on the other hand, were in a suitable place living in a world in which things "died" as they did. The fate of the race of Men was left open-ended and no such ultimatum was given to them as was the Elves.

  • Can you explain how you read that fragment, so? That sentence seems to say pretty plainly that "[Men] should have a virtue to shape their life, ... beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else...", so Men can shape their lives beyond the Music, but the Music is Fate to all things else. I'm looking for instances of Tolkien saying something more concrete about Free Will and Elves, but the particular statement in the OP doesn't seem to have anything to do with the fate of Arda?
    – Shisa
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 5:28
  • 11
    Sorry, what's the "quoted" text from?
    – Shisa
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 5:29
  • 2
    He seems to be paraphrasing and quoting a post by Inziladun from a forum. Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 12:18
  • 3
    @MeatTrademark Thanks! In light of that discussion thread, this answer seems even more incongruous and incomplete - and actually unrelated to the quote in the OP. Not sure why this is getting the votes - because it doesn't actually answer anything about what Tolkien said on this subject, just vague conjecture paraphrased from someone else on the internet.
    – Shisa
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 3:35
  • @Shisa You're welcome, and I agree. (It's also weird to not credit a source, but still use a block-quote.) Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 4:24

Events are destined to happen, but individual actions can be changed

Tolkien's most extensive thoughts on free will can be found in a four-page essay of his titled "Fate and Free Will", written around c.1968. This has been published in 2009 in Tolkien Studies #VI, and was then later republished in 2021 in The Nature of Middle-earth.

To give two relevant quotes from it:

one of the Eldar would have said that for all Elves and Men the shape, condition, and therefore the past and future physical development and destiny of this “earth” was determined and beyond their power to change, indeed beyond the power even of the Valar to alter in any large and permanent way. (They distinguished between “change” and redirection. Thus any “rational [?will-user]” could in a small way move, re-direct, stop, or destroy objects in the world; but he could not “change” [them] into something else. They did not confuse analysis with change, e.g. water/steam, oxygen, hydrogen.) The Downfall of Númenor was “a miracle” as we might say, or as they a direct action of Eru within time that altered the previous scheme for all remaining time. They would probably also have said that Bilbo was “fated” to find the Ring, but not necessarily to surrender it; and then if Bilbo surrendered it Frodo was fated to go on his mission, but not necessarily to destroy the Ring — which in fact he did not do. They would have added that if the downfall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring was part of Fate (or Eru’s Plan) then if Bilbo had retained the Ring and refused to surrender it, some other means would have arisen by which Sauron was frustrated: just as when Frodo’s will proved in the end inadequate, a means for the Ring’s destruction immediately appeared — being kept in reserve by Eru as it were.
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Fate and Free Will"

They would not have denied that (say) a man was (may have been) “fated” to meet an enemy of his at a certain time and place, but they would have denied that he was “fated” then to speak to him in terms of hatred, or to slay him. “Will” at a certain grade must enter into many of the complex motions leading to a meeting of persons; but the Eldar held that only those eff orts of “will” were “free” which were directed to a fully aware purpose. On a journey a man may turn aside, choosing this or that way – e.g. to avoid a marsh, or a steep hill – but this decision is mostly intuitive or half-conscious (as that of an irrational animal) and has only an immediate object of easing his journey. His setting-out may have been a free decision, to achieve some object, but his actual course was largely under physical direction – and it might have led to/or missed a meeting of importance. It was this aspect of “chance” that was included in umbar. See L.R. III p. 360: “a chance-meeting as we say in Middle-earth”. That was said by Gandalf of his meeting with Thorin in Bree, which led to the visit to Bilbo. For this “chance”, not purposed or even thought of by either Thorin or Gandalf, made contact with Gandalf’s great “will”, and his fixed purpose and designs for the protection of the NW frontiers against the power of Sauron. If Gandalf had been different in character, or if he had not seized the opportunity, the “chance” would, as it were, have failed to “go off” (misfired). Gandalf was not “fated” to act as he did then. (Indeed his actions were most odd, idiosyncratic, and unexpectable: Gandalf was a powerful “free will” let loose, as it were, among the physical “chances” of the world.)
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Fate and Free Will"

For more about this I'd recommend reading the full essay. For a survey of everything Tolkien has said elsewhere about free will, and of the various critical works that have been written by others on the nature of free will in his writings, I'd recommend reading the "Fate and free will" entry in Hammond and Scull's J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.


It is, in fact said in the Silmarillion that "to men, (Ilúvatar) gave strange gifts" which tends to suggest that there is a predestination to the world, and humans are the "wild cards in the deck", who can supersede this. (I could walk a flight of stairs, roust my house guests, and return with the page number, but any Tolkien buff who has read the Silmarillion 9 times or more as I have can just as easily find it in his own copy).

I suspect all races have free will over immediate situations, but in the end, the "Music" has a predeterministic element to it, and that men represent chaos theory to the Music of the Ainur, composed by Ilúvatar.

Of interest is that Túrin Turambar named himself "Master of Fate" and yet he played into his own fate is a very fateful way (Shakespeare would be proud, and I sure hope there's a "Mandos" in which Mr. Tolkien and Mr. Shakespeare collaborate.) of saying that sometimes we alter the design, sometimes we play into it, despite our best efforts and intentions (Interesting note is that Mr. Tolkien puts Túrin on the head of his Karmic hero scale, he will save the world in the last battle (and chase Morgoth up a pine tree?))

One relevant text that has always fascinated me is the tale of Finrod Felagund (by far the coolest of all elves, no citation needed) discussing the origin, fate, and nature of men with a wise (wo)man (from the house of Bëor? - again, I have guests in my library, feel free to help me out with citation) Felagund touches on the original nature of man (with references to original sin), and that man has adopted a different fate, fallen from its original intention that men should never die. This is an "Arda marred" concept that suggests that the spiritual nature of men is not less, but far greater than that of the Elves, but has fallen. References are vague, and tend to a darkness that men have left behind, and do not speak of - a literary device in which Tolkien uses vagueries to speculate on the spiritual nature of man.


A hint towards my answer is given here. Men were part of the Second Theme, which is heavily influenced by Melkor, but not him alone. From this we get that humans have potential for evil.

Why is this relevant: It shows that in the Music of the Ainur the nature of all races is defined, it does not deal with individual faiths. Therefore I conclude that Elves have as much free will as any other creature, they do not however, have the potential for evil, and are limited to the 'Good'.

  • 4
    Elves not having the potential for Evil seems to be unfounded - given the actions of Elvish individuals like Feanor and his sons and Eol etc.
    – Shisa
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 7:55
  • 1
    The Children of Iluvatar, including the race of Men, were brought in with the Third theme; and there were very definitely evil elves. Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 20:23
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    This is total bull; Ainulindale: "For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Iluvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making".
    – user8719
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 7:31

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